Meet a Downtown Resident: Courtroom Artist Elizabeth Williams

Elizabeth Williams with WABC-TV correspondent NJ Burkett

Elizabeth Williams with WABC-TV correspondent NJ Burkett

Elizabeth Williams, one of New York City’s premier courtroom artists, is  a Lower Manhattan resident, second vice president of the 1st Precinct Community Council and a member of Community Board 1.

How did you start in this field?

I was working in Hollywood drawing fashion sketches for studio designers like Bob Mackie and Liberace’s designer but not making much money. So a professor of mine suggested I try the court art field because I was pretty good at getting a likeness and fast. Took me a long time to break in and I finally established myself as a decent court artist with the John DeLorean trial in 1984, working for KABC News.

Tell us about your most challenging assignment.

Illustrating courtroom scenes is a combination of speed and accuracy. Sometimes it can turn into such a frenzied pitch that it can be quite tough. When Bernard Madoff pled guilty and the marshals slapped the handcuffs on him in court, I knew I had to get that scene, quick and dirty. I was working so fast that pencils and crayons were flying. It was not my best illustration ever, but one of the victims came up to the drawing and kissed it while it was being shot and said: “That was just what I wanted to see.” It made the effort all worthwhile.

What feedback have you received from your subjects?

Thankfully, various courtroom personalities have liked my work, from John Gotti to Ted Wells to Harvey Miller (who owns two of my illustrations). Once in a while lawyers will ask for more hair, and Gotti wanted to make sure he was smiling, but for the most part, comments have been okay. Recently, because my Times Square bomber-sentencing illustration ran on the cover of The New York Times, I am getting more positive feedback and acknowledgement.

What happens with your artwork afterwards?

I sell only the rights to reproduce my work so all the originals stay with me.  That is the case for all court artists I know of.

How long have you lived in lower Manhattan (and where)?

My husband and I moved to Battery Park City in 1991 and then in 1996 we moved to the Financial District, in one of the only three residential buildings at the time. We did not realize what pioneers we were, until we moved in.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Lower Manhattan?

I think Lower Manhattan has so much to offer and do, it is hard to say. I love going to the various museums, and the parks are wonderful. My husband and I like to take walks through Battery Park and Battery Park City up through Hudson River Park. I have given myself an assignment to draw all the parks of Lower Manhattan for a benefit coming up in May 2011. I even saw a Red-shouldered Hawk in Battery Park several weeks ago. It was quite remarkable.

What does the police precinct community council do to improve the community?

The Precinct Community Council offers a forum for the community and the police to communicate on issues that involve police intervention, from loud and noisy bars to issues of crime and illegal vending. The meetings are the last Thursday of the month at the 1st Precinct. We also run a big community outreach event called National Night Out on the first Tuesday of August. That event brings police and the community together in an informative and fun-filled evening. Our NNO this year was in Battery Park City and we were honored to be chosen as the official site of Manhattan.

What’s your dream assignment?

I’m not sure I have a dream assignment, but I have a dream that more illustration be used in all walks of life. I used to get a number of general illustration assignments in the ’80s and ’90s but with the advent of stock illustration, Photoshop and the down economy, the general illustration market is pretty dismal. I think good illustration adds an element of interest and uniqueness to any book, magazine, ad campaign or even museum show. A case in point is the Artist as Witness show at our local New York City Police Museum. The show is the work of artist Aggie Kenny who, on her own, drew the 9/11 responders in action months after the attacks — working on the pile, sleeping from pure exhaustion.  There are so many great illustrators out there and I just wish we would see more work like that.

Who was your favorite subject and why?

My favorite subject is people. I love to draw people, they are always so interesting — never dull — and always a challenge.

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